The Suez Canal, a channel between East and West, connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Simply put, it is a manmade 195km-long artificial waterway capable of transporting goods and fuel from one end of the world to the other end. To Egypt, though, the Suez Canal is by far more than a mere waterway. It has been and remains an amazing Egyptian feat that promises a more effective and even more lucrative return in the coming days.
The Suez Canal played an immense role in the making and breaking of countries and leaders alike. By controlling the Suez Canal, the game players, be they westerners or Egyptians, gained more power, and, hence, all parties involved risked much to command the Canal. Now Egyptians, the rightful owners, hold the destiny of the Suez Canal in their hands.
Ferdinand De Lesseps, a French diplomat and developer, was authorized to work on digging the Suez Canal in 1859. Forced Labour (corvée) was the method of employment, and the Canal was dug manually by picks and shovels. Over 100,000 Egyptians died in the ten-year span the Canal took to be built.
The company that built the Canal was given the right to operate it for 99 years. When Egypt gave up its shares to pay a debt, the British and the French benefited the most from the income the moneymaking Canal brought in.
Along the years and throughout history, the Suez Canal proved to be a source of pride to Egyptians, a thorn in the side of colonialists, and a strategic aspiration for the powerful. Even after the British withdrew all its troops from Egypt after the 1936 agreement, they maintained a strong hold of the Suez Canal with over 88,000 soldiers securing the Canal’s banks. The British knew that the Suez Canal played a dominating role in trade, shipping, and transporting energy and were reluctant to give it up.
Control of the Canal was considered so important that Britain, France, and Israel tried to wrestle it away from Egypt in 1956. Nasser wanted to use the Suez Canal’s earnings as leverage to build the Aswan High Dam when the West refused to support his project, only he infuriated the British even further and had them attack Egypt. The 1956 War, or what is known as the Tripartite Aggression, was a direct result to Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, which was in turn a direct result of Britain’s intentional effort to destroy Nasser.
Nasser then closed off the Canal for almost six months. The shock of the closure reverberated across the European trade and shipping industries. While the intervention cost Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s his downfall and resignation, it upped Nasser’s shares across the Arab World. The BBC February 2014 documentary, “The Other Side of Suez” on the topic is worth watching.
During the 1967 War, again Nasser closed off the Suez Canal, this time for over eight years. Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat reopened the canal as a gesture of peace after talks with Israel.
One may visualize the frustration of the world at large after each closure. With ships rerouted around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, food prices skyrocketed and fuel was rationed. The 16 extra days of travel increased the overall cost of the voyage by as much as $20,000 [approximately equivalent to $143,000 in 2014].
Clearly the Suez Canal played a vital role through strife, aggression, and war.
On August 6, 2015, however, Egypt will have completed the construction of a new Suez Canal parallel to the original one. It runs alongside part of the existing Canal, reducing transit and waiting times for ships. It took one year to dig the new Canal, at a cost of $8.5 billion, a sum Egyptians managed to collect in 8-working days to the disbelief of some.
The project was not only funded by Egyptians but also built by Egyptians in an astonishing record period—only one year, while the original Suez Canal took ten years. “Dubbed the Suez Canal Axis, the new 72-kilometre (45-mile) section built by the Egyptian army is aimed at speeding up traffic along the existing waterway by reducing the waiting period, as well as boosting revenues.”
Engineer Yasser Zaghloul, Chief Executive of the National Marine Dredging Company, in an interview with Osama Kamal of Alkahera360° (July 30, 2015) speaks of the scope and magnitude of the project. The Challenge Consortium, as it was dubbed, dredged 40 million tonnes of sand/rocks a month, when the dredging record is around 8 million a day. Most of the dredgers around the world were enlisted to work on the Suez Canal Project with countries willing to set their projects aside to complete the second Suez Canal. Brazil and Bahrain were two such countries.
Though the logistical challenges were massive, the company, in collaboration with the Suez Canal Authority and the military, was able to overcome these hurdles and come through with flying colours. The Suez Canal Authority provided the 160,000 tonnes of fuel at world prices, i.e. not subsidized. Feeding and housing thousands of workers wasn't easy, neither was mobilizing the mammoth dredgers. Workers were of 57 nationalities, 30% Egyptians. Still, it was an epic effort that stunned the world.
In the sixties, at a very early age, I often used to visit Ismailia with family to enjoy the beaches, in particular Plage D’Enfants and the Yacht Club, and was mesmerized by the convoy of crossing ships, so close and so enormous. I sort of understood what the Suez Canal meant to Egypt back then, but took it for granted nonetheless. In 1974, I crossed into free Sina, to appreciate the Suez Canal even further, and the fact that it was about to be opened to crossing once more.
Today, we are even more appreciative of the Suez Canal—an Egyptian endeavour on Egyptian soil.